So, heard any good discussions of game journalism ethics recently? Me neither. I’ve heard plenty of discussions, mind you… just not many good ones. So I thought I'd dust off my old Ombudsman hat and try to fix that.
To start, let me be clear that I’m trying my best to disentangle this ethical discussion from the recent, troubling wave of harassment against female/”social justice warrior” voices in game journalism and game development, and from the widespread counter-criticism of a segment of “gamers” that seems to encourage such harassment. Valid concerns about game journalism have become hopelessly wrapped up in these tangential issues, to the point where trying to actually talk about the ethics supposedly at the core of the debate is like stepping on a third rail nestled inside an active minefield. Amid all the hate and stereotyping and conspiracy-minded nuttiness and screaming past each other on both sides, there are some reasonable questions about the relationship between the press and their sources being raised, and that’s what I’d like to address here.
I’d also like to point out that this discussion is not a new one for all of us in the game press. I’ve been personally thinking and writing publicly about these issues since 2003, and pretty much every professional game journalist i know takes discussions of ethics similarly seriously. Just because these discussions have gained new volume in recent weeks (thanks largely to some truly hateful stuff) doesn’t mean they haven’t existed beforehand, even if some of the specific issues (such as crowdfunding) are relatively new.
So, let’s get right to it:
Is it OK for game journalists to be friends with the developers they cover?
I would say yes, to a point. Part of our jobs as game journalists/critics/writers/call-it-what-you-will is talking to the people that make the games we cover. This should be a somewhat adversarial relationship, where the journalist presses the developer on issues with the game and doesn’t take claims made by the developer at face value. That’s especially true when dealing with major corporations, with marketing departments designed to obfuscate the nature of a game in pursuit of glowing pre-release previews and reviews.
Some might hope that we as journalists would hold all of our subjects at arms length and treat every interview like an interrogation, bright lights in the eyes and all. But that’s just not the way it works in practice. For one, we’re usually talking to the people who make our favorite games; the ones who are often the reason we got into this business in the first place. In return, these developers are often some of the most passionate readers of our work, and share a love of gaming as a medium. Some level of admiration and mutual respect is normal and expected; anything less would come off as a bit passionless and dry.
For another, being friendly with sources is an essential part of a journalist’s job. Treating all development sources as the enemy is likely to get those sources to treat a journalist similarly in return, which is not good if you’re trying to get forthcoming quotes either on or off-the-record. Some of the best information a journalist gets often comes over friendly drinks with sources well after the “official” interview is over. Some degree of professional friendliness is necessary to be a good journalist.
There are limits to how far this friendliness should go, of course. It’s important to keep things cordial but professional. You don’t want to get so close to a source that you no longer feel comfortable criticizing them publicly, or that you feel the need to promote their work out of a sense of camaraderie. If you’re at the point where you’re romantically involved with or living with one of your primary sources, that line has almost definitely been crossed (this sentence is not meant as a specific accusation against any specific person, though I’ll not that this level of closenss is nothing new in game journalism) . At that point, you should recuse yourself from covering that source’s work or at the very least disclose the relationship when you do.
In most cases, though, I think journalists are perfectly able to keep a friendly-but-professionally-distant relationship with any number of developers without bringing any undue influence into things. It’s part of the job, and it’s part of being a social human.
Should game journalists be able to back projects on Kickstarter/Patreon? Is this any different than simply buying/pre-ordering a game?
This is tricky, largely unexplored territory in game journalism ethics, and people in good faith are going to come to different conclusions. Personally, I feel that backing gaming-related Kickstarter/Patreon projects in gaming should be actively discouraged for journalists, and should at the very least be disclosed when it happens.
My thinking on this grows out of what should be the bright dividing line that separates the role of a journalist/critic, who covers the industry, from the role of a developer or publisher, who actively contributes work within the industry. Journalists should do everything they can to avoid becoming part of the story, and to avoid influencing the industry they’re covering through anything but the words they write/say.
To me, funding a gaming project that wouldn’t exist without such funding crosses that line in a way that makes me uncomfortable. With a contribution to Kickstarter/Patreon, you are essentially becoming an investor in the game industry, using your money rather than your words to shape what games do and don’t get made, and thus crossing the line between observer and participant in the industry.
It doesn’t matter if it’s just a few dollars going to some tiny indie game. It doesn’t matter that the journalist doesn’t expect or want any monetary return on the investment. It doesn’t matter if you think there’s very little chance a professional journalist will actually be swayed in their coverage of a project because they have “skin in the game” via Patreon/Kickstarter (though even the appearance of that kind of conflict can be just as damaging to reader trust, in this case). Separate from all of that, I still feel that contributing to these kinds of crowdfunding projects crosses a line between covering the industry and contributing to the industry in a pretty big way.
Many people say this argument twists the way people actually use Patreon and Kickstarter, and that backing projects on these services is no different from pre-ordering a game or simply buying it from a store. After all, those kinds of purchases also give money to developers, who will use it to fund future projects, in effect shaping the direction of the industry. Should game journalists just never buy a single game, for fear of putting undue influence on the industry?
The distinction I make here has to do with when the funding comes. With a traditional retail or downloadable game, a journalist makes a purchase well after the development of that game has been fully funded by outside sources (even in the case of pre-orders). With Patreon and Kickstarter, a journalist is usually contributing money to a project that literally would not exist without that kind of direct monetary contribution. To me, the latter is a much more direct and troubling example of becoming a part of the industry, rather than a detached observer, even if both pscenarios are similar contributions of money to a developer.
(Some make a distinction here between Kickstarter, which is usually pledging money to a single, defined project, and Patreon, which is usually more amorphous monthly funding for less defined projects. This distinction cuts things a bit too thin even for my tastes, but some might see Patreon as a bit more suspect because of it)
Is this an unfair double standard for the usually smaller, more marginalized developers that tend to use Kickstarter and Patreon? Maybe. For some journalists, simply disclosing these kinds of contributions, rather than banning them altogether, is probably sufficient. If you feel your readers will be comfortable with the knowledge about your relationship with the project or game, and you can sleep at night while making those disclosures, then feel free. Personally, though, I think this kind of direct funding crosses an important line.
How should journalists handle all the free stuff they’re offered from developers and publishers
I first wrote about this nearly 11 years ago and I think it still applies today.
I’ll add that, in general, I encourage all journalists and critics to note the source of the game they cover with a quick message at the end of their pieces (“This review is based on a pre-release copy provided by the publisher” or “This analysis is based on the following games purchased directly by the author”).
Unfortunately this shot doesn't capture the timestamps for these entries, but by my RSS reader's count that's 18 posts from 11 sources, all bubbling up within minutes of each other (and I probably could have found more). "Blanket coverage" seems insufficient.
Editor's Note: This article was originally commissioned by a major video game news outlet, then killed upon receipt because an editor thought it would "cause too many problems." I present it here as it was presented to them.
This April, a group of a few dozen game journalists flew off to a beautiful Hawaiian resort for a three-day trip. The occasion wasn't some sort of industry-wide retreat or group vacation, but rather a Capcom game preview extravaganza known as Captivate. There, these select opinion-makers of the game industry enjoyed some of the best accommodations Hawaii had to offer, many of them on Capcom's dime.
Ostensibly, the purpose of these kinds of events -- known as junkets in the industry -- is to write up early access previews of upcoming games and interact with the people who make them. But the fringe benefits of these publisher-sponsored junkets -- which can range anywhere from free food and drink to flights and hotel stays to exclusive trips in military fighter jets and Zero-G suborbital planes -- can draw controversy for their effect on the way games are covered.
"You can argue that you can continue to be impartial in that situation, but the company paid for your plane ticket and hotel room in an island paradise," said Ars Technica Gaming Editor Ben Kuchera, who does not accept paid travel from publishers. "They are paying for your food and your drinks. It is not the best circumstance for a sober, measured look at these games."
Of course, the journalists that accept these trips insist that the all-expenses-paid trappings are beside the point. "I won't lie, Hawaii was nice," said Destructoid editor-in-chief Nick Chester, who let Capcom pay for his trip to Captivate. "I'd never been before! But really, I was there to do work, and I'd say I spent the bulk of the time watching presentations, playing games, and speaking with developers."
For Chester, and many other journalists I spoke to that accept paid travel from game publishers, taking a free trip to a junket is the best way for them to inform their readers. "There's simply no way we could have been able to cover the event if Capcom hadn't covered the costs," Chester said. "We're in the business of delivering to our readers the information that they want -- it's why they keep coming back for more. [If we hadn't attended] our coverage would have suffered greatly, and our readers would have been forced to look elsewhere."
Those that attend junkets also stress that a free trip doesn't guarantee a good review for the games on display there. "I'm about to give Lost Planet 2 a 5/10 rating because it was a horrible experience," said Maxim Gaming Editor Gerasimos Manolatos, who had Capcom pay for his trip to Captivate. "It wouldn't have made a difference to me if it was the grandest party of all-time ... it could have taken place in my living room." [Editor's Note: After this story first ran on The Game Beat, Nick Chester wrote in to note that he gave Lost Planet 2 a 4/10]
Which begs the question, why do publishers pay for these junkets in the first place? For Capcom Senior PR Manager Melody Pfeiffer, the trips are more about securing a journalist's attention than their opinion. "Our annual event, Captivate, was first inspired by the idea of creating a full 'Capcom Experience' where press would have three days to spend playing our upcoming lineup, getting to know our producers and discussing our games with their creators," she said. "We didn’t tell them that in order to be invited, they have to write about everything they saw and in a positive way. This is up to them to decide, we just gave them the opportunity to do it."
But many journalists think there's more to a junket than getting journalists' attention. "Let's be logical here: no company gives you money for nothing," Kuchera said. "If your site has been given thousands of dollars worth of flights and amenities, there is an expectation there. It's not as sinister as a straight bribe, but PR will always position itself to try to get the best coverage of as many of their games as possible, and they spend money to do that."
And some journalists think that's money that could be better spent elsewhere. "Keep in mind, these events are very expensive," said Chris Grant, Editor-in-Chief of Joystiq, which has an editorial policy against taking paid trips from publishers. "The money that a company uses to finance the travel and, to some degree, vacations of a few dozen of the country's gaming press is money that, ultimately, is coming out of consumer's pockets."
While many outlets somehow disclose when coverage comes as a result of a publisher-funded junket, Grant worries that gamers don't really understand what goes into the game previews they read. "From what I can tell... readers do not realize the nature and frequency of events like these and, even more disappointingly, most of them don't seem to care," he said. "It's not a matter of whether or not I trust my writers to remain impartial in the face of gifts and free trips; it's more a matter of whether readers can continue to place their trust in us if they know we accept those things."
Some journalists, though, argue that their readers' trust isn't such a fragile thing. "We are an enthusiast press, and as such, we work closely with publishers and developers," said Tom Chick, a freelancer who writes for Syfy's Fidgit gaming blog. "It's important that readers realize that, but it's also important that they know they can trust some of us. I spent two days in Hawaii looking at Capcom's upcoming game line-up. I really like Lost Planet 2. There is no causation between the former and the latter. That's where my reputation hopefully comes into play."
In the end, most who write about games acknowledge that managing junkets is a balancing act. "The fact is, we, the press, are there as guests," said GamingNexus Staff Writer Jeremy Duff. "And it is up to each of us individually to walk fine line of being a gracious guest while still maintaining our responsibility to our readers."
As I begin writing this, Starcraft II has been out for over a day and has exactly one review listed on GameRankings.
This is practically unprecedented for a major, modern video game release. Mass Effect 2 had 27 online reviews listed on GameRankings by its Jan. 26 release date. Curious Super Mario Galaxy 2 shoppers had at least 15 different opinions guiding them on launch day. Even reclusive Rockstar Games allowed 11 reviews of Red Dead Redemption to leak out in time for that game's release. You get the idea.
Of course, the lack of release day reviews for the latest Starcraft was by design on Blizzard's part. While journalists have had access to the multiplayer beta since February, they only got access to the final retail build of the single-player campaign when the battle.net servers were turned on for consumers yesterday. Blizzard isn't officially commenting on the move, but Eurogamer's on-background sources have them comfortable enough to say "the new Battle.net service and its online features are so integral to the game that it would be both impractical and undesirable for press to review it before servers go live." Of course that doesn't fully explain why journalists couldn't have access to those servers a little earlier than consumers, but it is what it is.
As it stands, dozens of critics are doubtless currently dashing through their copies of Starcraft II, rushing to put together some coherent impressions before the launch-window attention dries up (and before competitors get their reviews into the vacuum). Quite a few sites felt the need to specifically mention the lack of early review access, perhaps none more amusingly than Rock Paper Shotgun. IGN was almost apologetic about it: "The goal is to get you a review as quickly as possible, but we'll also be taking to time to see all there is to see in StarCraft II. Because of that, there's no specific date when the review might show up. We are working on it, though, so don't think we've forgotten about what's arguably the biggest game of the year."
It seems obvious why this isn't an ideal state of affairs for everyone involved. Gamers who want to buy the game on release day will essentially be going in blind, basing their purchase decisions on previews and a prequel that was released 11 years ago. Blizzard will be losing out on media attention and consumer mindshare that launch day reviews generate. And critics, of course, lose out on all the Google traffic surrounding the game's launch, which will likely never be higher than it is on release day.
But maybe these negatives aren't really negatives. After all, reviews obviously aren't very important to the more than 800,000 people that pre-ordered the game without reading a single "10 out of 10." And analysts are already predicting the game will sell 7 million units over its lifetime, suggesting Blizzard won't be paying any significant long term price for the small dip in release day media attention. As for the critics... well, they kind of get the short end of the stick here, don't they?
When you think about it, it's kind of surprising that publishers let reviewers have early access to any big name releases. Starcraft II's impressive pre-order numbers seem to show that, absent any first day reviews, consumers are comfortable coming out in droves for a game (and a developer) that has a sufficiently impressive pedigree.
Now think about how the equation changes if reviews are available on day one. If the reviews are good (as they almost always are for such big-franchise releases), it will just confirm consumers' expectations and probably not lead to a significant bump in launch day sales. But if the reviews are somehow worse than expected, potential first-day purchasers might hesitate, holding their money until they get confirmation from a friend, or even moving on to another game entirely.
For smaller games, the risk of bad early reviews is worth the opportunity to capture more media attention and consumer mindshare. But for the biggest titles, where consumer mindshare is already saturated by release day, surely the potential risks outweigh the potential rewards.
There's a reason film studios increasingly don't allow early press screenings of some of their most heavily marketed movies -- they want to buy their way into a decent opening weekend before the critical world (and word of mouth) potentially breaks the marketing bubble they've created. I'm increasingly afraid that Starcraft II's review-free launch will prove that the same strategy now makes sense for the video game market as well.